North Seymour Island, Galápagos

A short boat ride from Baltra Island is North Seymour Island. This first stop for many visitors to the Galápagos Islands is a treasure trove of fascinating wildlife waiting to greet you on their .75 square mile barren abode.

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Exploring the Galápagos, EC

Visiting the Galápagos Islands is a dream trip! This Ecuadorian archipelago – a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety – is renowned for its pristine scenery, endemic wildlife and marine ecosystem. Although day trips from one of two islands are available, the best way to experience the Galápagos is aboard a small cruise ship with a five to seven day itinerary. The excursions above and below the water led by passionate naturalists will thrill you during every minute of your incredible journey. In this travel guide, you leave from Baltra Island – one of two islands with an airport – and visit North Seymour Island.

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Frigatebird Welcoming Committee in Galápagos, EC

As your ship sets sail for an unforgettable tour of the Galápagos, you will likely be accompanied by a squadron of frigatebirds. The larger of the two species inhabiting the islands is the magnificent frigatebird. Their enormous wingspan – ranging from seven to eight feet – is designed for incredible aeronautics. They are capable of riding on thermal air currents for hours without flapping their wings and can stay aloft for days. Do not expect to see them dive into the water like most seabirds. Their feathers are not waterproof so they must catch their prey such as flying fish above the waves. Alternatively, they harass other seabirds to drop or regurgitate their food while soaring midair.

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1 Daphne Minor in Galápagos, EC

Galápagos Islands consist of 13 main islands and six smaller ones. Only two are inhabited. There are also more than 100 islets spread across the 3,000 plus square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago is about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. This rock is Daphne Minor, located just northwest of Isla Baltra. Its sibling is the nearby Daphne Major. The barren Daphne Islands are satellite cones formed by volcanic flank eruptions about 1.8 million years ago. Sorry, but unless you are a seabird, you are not allowed to visit without a permit.

Isla Daphne Menor, Ecuador
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2 Introduction to North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

North Seymour Island is about five miles from Baltra Island. This proximity makes it a popular destination for day-trippers by charter boat. Isla Seymour Norte is also small – less than .75 square miles. The terrain is dry, barren and rocky. The primary vegetation is gnarled white palo santo trees and distressed cactus. You will also walk by thickets of saltbrush plus orange and purple groundcover called sesuvium or Galápagos carpetweed. So what makes this harsh environment appealing? North Seymour Island hosts the largest colonies of frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and land iguanas in the Galápagos. Encircling the island is an ideal marine ecosystem with five underwater sites guaranteed to delight snorkelers and divers of any experience level.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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3 Trail System on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

You will approach North Seymour Island on an inflatable boat. The landing is classified as dry. This means you will not get your feet wet. But disembarking onto slippery rocks can be a challenge. Before your excursion begins, a guide certified by the Galápagos National Park will explain the rules. A critical one to protect the fragile habitat is to stay within the narrow path marked by small white stakes. Don’t worry … this is hardly a restriction. The wildlife is so close they will watch you as you watch them. The trail system at North Seymour is about 1.24 miles long. It is rated as difficult because of the rocky, uneven path. The typical visit ranges from 60 to 120 minutes.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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4 Blue-footed Booby Close Up on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

You will not walk far on North Seymour Island before encountering a blue-footed booby. Their radiant blue feet are unmistakable and, frankly, unbelievable. This 32 to 34 inch marine bird is a lightweight at about 3.25 pounds. On the ground, they are fearlessness when approached and have a clownish walk. So Spanish navigators called the bird “bobo” meaning stupid. Yet they are amazing aviators. Their five-foot wingspan folds inward when their yellow irises spot a school of sardines. A flock of 12 or more will plunge simultaneously into the water like missiles traveling 60 m.p.h. They can then swim up to 80 feet deep to catch their prey. Estimates suggest there are over 6,500 blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos. Unfortunately, the population is declining.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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5 Formation of North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

This blue-footed booby was dancing, calling and skypointing (raised head and bill) during mating season which runs from June through August. Notice the cliffline where this courtship is unfolding. It is unusual for the Galápagos. Most of the islands in the archipelago were created by volcanic activity. In contrast, North Seymour was born about two million years ago when shifting tectonic plates collided and lifted the sea floor 92 feet above the water. The island’s namesake is Lord Hugh Seymour. He was an 18th century Vice-Admiral in the British Royal Navy and a member of Great Britain’s Parliament.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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6 Old Blue-footed Booby on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Seeing this blue-footed booby standing along the path is exciting. But this one is a turn off if you are another blue-footed booby. Why? Notice the gray feet. The color of a blue-footed booby’s feet is impacted by age, health and the carotenoid pigments consumed in their fish diet. Both genders only select mates with blue feet because they signal fertility. Studies also show color intensity indicates bettering parenting. Bright blue-footed females lay bigger eggs and similar fathers raise faster growing chicks. So this old bird will probably live out the rest of its 17 years as a bachelor.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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7 Wildlife Photographer on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Wildlife photographers – especially bird photographers – are a unique breed. They spend days in the field being quiet and patient while scanning the terrain with binoculars and listening for calls. At the slightest movement, they focus a very long lens braced by a tripod for a perfect shot between dense foliage. None of those skills are needed at the Galápagos Islands. The wildlife is so abundant, so close and so unflinching that anyone with a mobile phone can take amazing photos.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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8 Red Sacs on Male Magnificent Frigatebirds on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

You will never forget seeing a male magnificent frigatebird with an enormous red balloon below the neck. The color is intensified by their black feathers and the surrounding white brush where they perch. This scarlet throat pouch is inflated during mating season to attract females. Notice the deflated sac of the bird on the right. Most pelecaniformes – such as pelicans and related marine birds – have a similar gular pouch. It is designed to scoop up fish and then drain water before eating. But the frigatebird has elevated this feature to a dramatic flamboyance.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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9 Male Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Two species of frigatebirds patrol the skies over the Galápagos Islands. One is the great (fregata minor) and the largest is the magnificent. The easiest way to identify the fregata magnificens is by the purple iridescence across the back feathers. This prevalent seabird weighs 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, measures up to 3.75 feet and has an impressive wingspan between seven and eight feet. This is the highest wing-to-body-weight-ratio of any bird. This aerodynamic design allows a magnificent frigatebird to effortlessly stay aloft for days without landing. When they ride thermal drafts, they can reach altitudes up to 8,000 feet. Let’s meet the entire family of this truly magnificent bird.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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10 Female Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

This is a female juvenile magnificent frigatebird. Her coloring is very different from males. There is a light blue ring around her eyes. Her chest and underbelly feathers are white. Her head plumage is white now but will turn dark. And there is no mistaking the long, hooked bill. Females are larger than their male counterparts. So, in essence, they are the largest bird living in the Galápagos Islands. In the mid-17th century, French sailors coined the name la frégate because the bird’s speed and maneuverability were reminiscent of a frigate warship.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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11 Two Male Magnificent Frigatebirds on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

During mating season – from August through October – male magnificent frigatebirds behave like fraternity boys on a weekend. They perch together in groups while scanning the sky for passing females. Then they create a ruckus by flapping their wings, shaking their heads, chattering loudly and inflating their crimson red gular pouches. Out of this rowdy bunch, the female selects a suitable mate. This leaves the other boys crossing their feathers to be equally lucky.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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12 Male and Chick Magnificent Frigatebirds on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Frigatebirds nest in trees or underbrush as a colony. The parents share responsibility for incubating an egg for 53 to 61 days. When hatched, the chick is featherless. Then they morph into this adorably yet helpless fluffball. For the first seven to 12 weeks, one parent will guard the offspring while the other hunts for food. After that period, the wayward father disappears leaving all the childrearing to the now single mom. He goes off to find another mate. She can only produce a single egg every other year. The frigatebird is the only bird with different mating frequency among the genders.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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13 Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

The fledging period for a young magnificent frigatebird is about 22 weeks. Unlike most birds, they do not like “flying the coop.” In fact, they stick around the nest longer than any other bird. They remain dependent on their mother for food and care for 10 to 12 months after hatching. Most of a juveniles’ day is spent standing around the nest waiting for the next meal from mom. Sound familiar? Occasionally you will see two juveniles play a game of tag with sticks. They practice snatching it from each other. This skill will help them steal food from other birds when they become an adult.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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14 Galápagos Land Iguana Climbing Rock on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

As the trail along North Seymour Island moves away from shore, you will soon be greeted by an inland resident: the Galápagos land iguana. You will find them among the tan rocks at the base of prickly pear cacti (opuntia). This is their main source of food, water and shelter from the sun. The scientific name for this endemic creature is conolophus meaning spiny crest. How they arrived here is an interesting story. During the 1930s, oil baron George Allan Hancock commissioned five scientific voyages to the Galápagos. During the Hancock Expedition’s first visit to Baltra Island in 1932-33, they discovered the local land iguanas were dying off from non-native animals such as dogs and cats. So, they transplanted 70 of the reptiles to North Seymour. Lucky they did. Within two decades, the iguanas became extinct on Isla Baltra. During the 1990s, some North Seymour land iguanas were repatriated to Baltra where they are now beginning to thrive.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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15 Hiding Baby Galápagos Land Iguana on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Female Galápagos land iguanas lay two to 20 eggs per season in about 20 inches of sand. After 85 to 125 days, the brood hatches and can struggle for days to unbury themselves. Their mortality rate is high from predators during the first couple of years. As Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests, it is the “survival of the fittest.” Or perhaps this hiding infant is demonstrating it is the smartest land iguanas that live up to their 50 to 60 year life potential. Estimates suggest there are 5,000 to 10,000 land iguanas in the Galápagos Islands. About 2,500 of them live on North Seymour.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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16 Advancing Galápagos Land Iguana on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

An adult Galápagos land iguana is enormous. Their average length is three to five feet. They can weigh as much as 25 pounds. This one looked menacing and prehistoric as its sharp clawed toes and powerful hind legs thundered down the visitors’ trail. Yet somehow the intimidating aggression of this cold-blooded reptile was softened by the smirk on its scaly face. Obviously it loves scaring tourists.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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17 Female Lava Lizard on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Also living on North Seymour is the Galápagos lava lizard. At five to six inches long, they are much smaller than land iguanas as demonstrated by the juvenile land iguana on the right. The lava lizard can be found on seven islands in the Galápagos. Each of these islands has a unique species yet they are all part of the Microlophus albemariensis classification. A common factor is females have a red throat pouch like this one on the left. Males have dark throats, are more colorful, larger and have a row of small spikes along the back. These creatures are highly adaptive to their environment. Their coloring will mirror their surroundings. If caught by a predator, they are capable of detaching their tail which will then grow back.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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18 Beach on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

Toward the end of your exploration of North Seymour Island, the barren, harsh landscape opens up to a long stretch of pristine sand. The shoreline is defined by piles of lava rock. Their smooth surfaces were polished while tumbling along the floor of the Pacific Ocean. In the distance are the Daphne Islands. Daphine Major is on the left and Daphne Minor is on the right. Both of these tuff cones were formed by volcanic activity. They are uninhabited and treeless yet do support colonies of birds.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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19 Sleeping Sea Lion Pup on North Seymour in Galápagos, EC

This baby sea lion was exhausted after a day of romping around the beach at North Seymour. He waddled away from the colony, yawned and then dropped down into the warm sand. He was asleep within seconds. Mom was close by and not approving of the tourists trying to photograph this adorable face. Her bark was sufficient warning to move away. A cow will continue to protect her pup up to three years even though they stop nursing after 11 months and begin feeding themselves.

North Seymour Island, Ecuador
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